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Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Buffaloes hope to erase memory of '10 slide
Since its inception in 2005, interleague play has often been a shot in the arm for Pacific League teams. Slow starts and patches of rough play have routinely been smoothed over after a few rounds of knocking around Central League squads.
But what happens when it's time to return to reality?
For the Orix Buffaloes last season, reality meant a steady decline from winning the interleague title to missing out on a spot in the Climax Series.
This year, the Buffaloes are back, and only time will tell if they can avoid a repeat.
Orix rolled through the interleague portion of the schedule this season, going 15-7-2 to finish second only to the midseason champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. The Buffaloes had the second-highest batting average and third-lowest ERA during interleague play.
What remains to be seen is if they can maintain that level against PL competition.
Orix has had trouble scoring runs in the PL all year and hasn't been much better at preventing them.
Their 176 runs are the fewest in the league and they're tied with the Seibu Lions with a league-worst .239 batting average. On the mound they have a league-high 3.15 ERA.
That being said, this is the year to be a little subpar in the Pa. League. The Hawks and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are at the top of the standings and may be the best two teams in Japan but pickings are slim from there.
The Buffaloes are in third place, six games behind the Fighters. The Lions are sputtering along in fourth and the fifth-place Chiba Lotte Marines have been hit by injuries and aren't playing well.
Rounding out the bunch are the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. They've looked horrible this year and recently were called out by manager Senichi Hoshino for not being "macho" enough.
The Eagles are only 3? games behind the Buffaloes, so the situation from third to sixth promises to be fluid.
Still, it's a manageable state of affairs for the Kansai club.
Working in Orix's favor is that it has two decent pitchers in Hayato Terahara and Alfredo Figaro in the rotation.
The Buffaloes will also fully take the shackles off ace Chihiro Kaneko, who rejoined the team last month after recovering from elbow surgery, going forward.
But even if their pitching gets better, manager Akinobu Okada needs to generate some offense somewhere.
Tomotaka Sakaguchi (.330 average and .781 OPS) is among the best hitters in Japan out of the leadoff spot, but who's going to drive him in?
Mitsutaka Goto, Keiji Obiki and Aarom Baldiris are among those who haven't been up to par as the offense has struggled.
Takehiro Okada has 41 RBIs, but no one else on the team has more than 17. His eight home runs is also a team high.
The Buffaloes K-Pop experiment has also fizzled out so far.
Slugger Lee Seung Yeop isn't playing well and pitcher Park Chan Ho is still trying to find his way on the farm team.
Despite their shortcomings, the Buffaloes could still reach the playoffs as the third team in the PL. They've helped at least lay the groundwork with another good interleague run.
Last season the Buffaloes rose to third place in the PL standings on the strength of their interleague success. They went 37-41-3 to end the season.
Another strong interleague campaign has them back in the same position.
So the next challenge is to find a way to stop history from repeating itself.